with grateful appreciation to Lino Tagliapietra*
Perhaps at first you do not see the shadows
underneath the delicate glass fish suspended
out of water,
tapered like a rainbowed flock
of mythical birds--
back memories fashioned by alchemy
of blown glass
Endeavor** is a perfect verb for working with glass--
No one but the glassmaker understands the
Delicate alchemy of heat, molten glass, the
Emotional nature of glass blowing— imagine
A slender strand pulled into being, like a
Venetian gondola for the Festa della Sensa***
Opulent colours, diamond-cut into shape for a
Ritual reminiscent of a water parade.
Reflection is a perfect word for glass and memory.
Emotions rise looking at the suspended
Flotilla— flying flock of birds, sweep of
Light shimmering like a school of fish—an
Expectation waiting to
Celebrate the beauty of a community.
Tapered ends stretch out like hands, suspended
In stillness, as our eyes explore— see
Overhead, the connected fishing lines, bait of boats,
Notice their shadows cast in the imaginary waters below.
*There are 18 elongated boat forms (canoa) that are suspended in the air by steel cables. Battuto cut, is made with a hard diamond edge. https://www.cmog.org/audio/tagliapietra-endeavor-513
** etymology: , middle English: the sense ‘exert oneself’ to do one’s utmost
*** Feast of the Ascension https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Festa_della_Sensa
MA French Literature, New York University; MFA Poetry, Pacific University, OR. Art Docent (Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY) since 1998. Since 2008, Kitty has been moderating weekly poetry appreciation sessions and occasional presentations on art and word. (Since March 2020, these are conducted by zoom.) Known for her contagious enthusiasm, she embraces the joy of working with language, art, and helping others to become good readers of poems, people and life. Her work is in 6 books, published since 2009 and in numerous journals and anthologies. Her latest book, Sum:1 is available from FootHills publishing: http://www.foothillspublishing.com/2021/jospe.html
Dwelling in Delight
The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.
Ross Gay, The Book of Delights
The majestic maple’s
shout look at me
in a way that makes it
impossible not to grin
even as some docile
like old socks,
around the ankles.
Where the house meets
the dirt, some wriggling
red worms line up
in the dappled yellow
of a new day.
This abode holds
what matters most
and ignores the barking
coming from the side yard.
Wayward joy contains
the realness of things,
but holds the kindling
lightly so oxygen can
whisper to the flame
resist — be stubborn
in your gladness.
The wind throws a fit,
but this domicile stands.
In the before now,
this home was enveloped
by clouded uncertainty.
Even when the sky sang
the lapis of a lagoon,
the discordant melody fell flat,
tumbled in one ear,
out through the lungs.
But today, this dwelling shines.
In childhood, mirth and misery
appeared as angry antonyms
on the playground and on Looney Tunes.
But they’ve always lived in the
same house, just different floors.
Even when life sings a sorrowful
song, don’t be confused.
Turn on the lights and
study delight. Do this.
While birds build nests, we write alphabets of their trees.
In skyscrapers, the steel beams, like massive twigs,
envelop and protect us in a vocabulary of shelter, place.
The hills and valleys of the metropolis create shadow,
refract the warm light like gleaming mountain lakes.
Dichotomous childhood tales of urban and rural rodents
highlight only distinctions, but I have seen sunrise-painted skies
evoke magic in the mountains and from urban balconies.
We can be lost, found, saved or forgotten everywhere we go.
Can you recall the exact tones and tunes of traffic or ocean waves,
a moment’s particular echoes and silhouettes at dusk, secrets felt
in alleys and neural paths – scents of coconut lime treats.
I have heard roosters crow in mountainous Monteverde and
in a Saigon hotel room, high up above the bustling streets.
And in half-sleep notice the newborn sunlight on my morning sheets.
All our places leave inner souvenirs – traces of coastal saltwater in our genes.
Some boroughs and bogs we can only visit again in our heads.
But a known quality of radiance can peek through in unexpected ways,
a minds-eye homecoming to a specific street, a morning in a drafty kitchen.
All those particles of ash and smog, smells of wet soil and peat
form a now of then, the cyclical motions of wash, rinse and repeat.
Was the grief worth the poem? No,
but you don’t interrogate a weed
for what it does with wreckage.
For what it’s done to get here.
To Get Here
It’s vertigo, plain and simple –
the sky spinning under my toes,
the same feet that touch
summer grass and pavement heat.
Where are you from?, they say.
We are from a house of longing, a garden
full of flowering weeds, where Persian
green, black and goldenrod meet.
Grief congeals in the lungs,
while the past coats the hips,
but it’s the shin bones that splinter
in the escape, fuse together, never quite heal.
Though you walk with a limp, the paintings
and poems rush from your fingertips.
Small shoots of caper spurge and wild carrot
emerge triumphant, weeds in name only.
It costs too much to leave the rubble,
arrive from across oceans, or even from
another side of town. From the compost pile,
improbably, roots grow toward the night sky.
Ellen Skilton’s poetry has appeared in The Dewdrop, Cathexis Northwest Press, The Scapegoat Review, Dissident Voice, Philadelphia Stories, Red Eft Review, and The Dillydoun Review. In addition to being a poet, she is an excellent napper, a chocolate snob, a swimmer, and lives in Philadelphia with Zoomer (her dog), Katniss (her cat), and some lovely humans.
Weary from a long day of traveling, and too poor to spend a night at the inn, I spotted a lonely cove that promised a quiet night’s sleep. Blades of grass tickled my ankles as the soft sand, still warm from the blistering heat of the afternoon, massaged the tired muscles in my feet. A gentle breeze that smelled of salt and seaweed seasoned the rice ball that I pulled from my bag. It was all I had left. Tomorrow, I would wake hungry. I would remain hungry.
But tonight, I lay in the sand, the cool light of the moon soothing my tired soul, the warmth of the sand absorbing the tension from my shoulders and back.
I saw her before I heard her. She glowed in the moonlight. Or rather, the moonlight glowed through her. Emaciated, she glided along the sand that I had just trudged through, grasping at her baby, pressing it against her dry breasts. But there was no movement. It was simply a small lump that had once been hungry, but would never eat again.
I realized too late that this woman was not of this world, but was still haunted by such worldly emotions as agony, torment, grief, fear. The agony of starvation. The torment of being too poor to feed her baby. The grief of that child’s death. Fear that nothing would ever change.
I know this woman. No, not her name, not her particular situation. But I know her and hundreds like her. Before her, exist the ghosts of millions who died because they were simply too poor to find food to eat. Behind her, millions more will follow. She is me and I am her. Hungry, hopeless, forgotten.
Are we destined to endure this misery even in death?
I saw her before I heard her. But it is her sobbing that torments me to this day.
Linda A. Gould
Linda A. Gould is an American who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years. She incorporates Japanese themes, legends and culture in her fiction. She is a published author; the editor of White Enso, a journal for creative work inspired by Japan; and host of the Kaidankai a podcast on Spreaker and Spotify that features supernatural tales from around the world. Follow her on Instagram at whiteensojapan and Twitter @WhiteEnso.
Tori Smith, a journalism student at Ball State University interviewed us for part of an article on ekphrastic writing. Click on the screenshot below to read her story. Thanks Tori!!!
The ekphrastic responses to this John Bradley painting are up! Read selected fiction and poetry inspired by the painting above. Click on the image.
“Aree’s Abstract,” by Theodore Carter
The tragic depiction of an elephant artist who dares to paint outside the box.
“Nude in the Bath,” by Laurel Peterson
Peterson creates a fully-formed backstory for the subject of this Pierre Bonnard painting–a woman who has it all, but still wants more.
“A Note to Henri from His Wife,” by Cyndi MacMillan
MacMillan responds to Matisse’s The Pink Studio through a note of artistic advice (or is it a warning?) from his wife.
“Street in Venice” by W.M. Herring
A poetic reminder that some men will always judge a woman.
“Camille, at the end, poetry,” by Kim Mannix
A touching remembrance of Monet’s first wife, Camille.
Lynn Aprill is an award-winning educator and emerging poet whose work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Copperfield Review Quarterly, Bramble, WinglessDreamer, Quartet Journal, Willows Wept Review, and others. A Wisconsin native, she received a BA in English from UW-Eau Claire and an MA in Curriculum and Instruction from UW-Milwaukee. Her micro fiction piece “The Message” recently won the The Ekphrastic Review Fifty Shades of Blue competition. Channeling Matriarchs, her first chapbook with Finishing Line Press, was published in August 2021. She resides with her husband and various dogs on 40 acres in Northeast Wisconsin.
There are almost seven years worth of writing at The Ekphrastic Review. With daily or more posts of poetry, fiction, and prose for most of that history, we have a wealth of talent to show off. We encourage readers to explore our archives by month and year in the sidebar. Click on a random selection and read through our history.
Our occasional Throwback Thursday feature highlights writing from our past, chosen on purpose or chosen randomly.
Would you like to be a guest editor for a Throwback Thursday? Pick 10 or so favourite or random posts from the archives of The Ekphrastic Review. Use the format you see above: title, name of author, a sentence or two about your choice, or a pull quote line from the poem and story, and the link. Include a bio and if you wish, a note to readers about the Review, your relationship to the journal, ekphrastic writing in general, or any other relevant subject. Put THROWBACK THURSDAYS in the subject line and send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's have some fun with this- along with your picks, send a vintage photo of yourself too!
Forest & Dove — Max Ernst, 1927
bodily in the leaves'
language net / that roots might erupt like a syntax
of assault / the forest's carved-wooden
face an unanswered
question at your throat / there are no wings to beat
an escape with
& suddenly you are a boy
on fear / joy
the pines dreaming of hunched branches / the mind
upraising red fingers in awe
Cameron Clark is a poet based in the South of England. He is interested in exploring his own experience of blindness through poetry, and the complex history that underpins the island he lives on. He has had poems published in or forthcoming from Autumn Sky Poetry and Agenda Magazine, and his micro-fiction has appeared in several anthologies.
Looking David in the Eyes
As a sandstorm approaching the travelers when the oasis is in sight, rage broke out in the chest of the master when a few touches separated the sculpture from being complete. Suddenly, the arms with veins popping out from as thick as the marble skin look as if made by the hands of an amateur. Posture, just a moment ago appearing beyond perfection, reveals the touches of rough instruments, making David look like an invalid. The face seems frightened then ready for the battle with the mighty Goliath. The master attacks the desk. The wood scatters to pieces and the instruments fall on the ground, echoing the days and nights of work and whispers behind the windows of the studio from those who wished to have a glimpse. He stands in front of David as Goliath with a hammer, feeling how his hand fills the wooden handle with blood as if it was his own skin. There it is, the sculpture having nothing in common with the master. He steps forward and falls on the knees as if have been hit by a rock and the rage like the sandstorm calms down, leaving him weeping in front of his now complete masterpiece.
Mantas Stockus is a Malta-based Lithuanian. He has MA in Modern-and-Contemporary Literature and Criticism and is particularly interested in thought-provoking writing and poetry. His writing has appeared in various print and digital publications.
Are You There, God? It's Me, Andy
On Andy Warhol: Revelations at the Brooklyn Museum
“Everyone thinks Andy was just lucky with all that fame and fortune. Turns out, he was praying the whole time.”
In one of the Conversations with God books, Neale Donald Walsch talks about a low point in his life. There’s no food or money or rent and then one night he goes to the bus station on an errand and finds a young couple there. They’re shivering cold and he invites them in for a little shelter and warmth. Once home, he reaches deep inside his refrigerator and cupboards, grabs those neglected supplies we all take for granted sometimes, and they have a feast for the evening.
Every cranny of his kitchen reveals a minor smorgasbord; those things he’d forgotten are now new delicacies. The moral of the story is all of us only receive as we try to give.
The moral of the story is I always forget about the can of Campbell’s Soup in the far back corner of my cabinets until I’m starving, or if it’s sitting right in front of me. The Conversations with God books (there are 9) sold over 10 million copies. Mr. Walsch and God just kept on talking. And there are 32 varieties in the original Warhol Soup Can series.
Both Warhol and Walsch have been called out for plagiarism. But not by God. God uses saints to explain. God makes copies like a derelict copy machine; everything repeats.
An old joke my father used to tell: A guy looks everywhere in his house and there’s not a speck of food to eat. He’s emptied shelves, turned over drawers. He finally says, “God, please, I’m so hungry. If you give me some food, I promise I’ll stop lying and telling stupid jokes and cheating on my wife.”
Just then he opens a cabinet out of frustration. Right there on the shelf, in a place he’s looked a dozen times, a can of soup stares him in the face. The man says, “Never mind, God. Forget what I said. I found something.”
According to Time Magazine, the most expensive bowl of soup ever, cost over $5,000 at auction. The proceeds went to charity. A non-charitable bowl of soup would set you back as much as $688 at the Talon Club in Vegas. The secret ingredient, Cordyceps (or “caterpillar fungus”), increases stamina and cures cancer and acts as an aphrodisiac.
My mom’s chicken and rice soup cures cancer too, we always used to say.
In 2010, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) from 1962 sold for over 9 million dollars at Christie’s.
Right now you can buy Conversations with God, Book One, for a dollar ninety-nine on Amazon.com. A six-pack of Campbell’s will cost you 6 bucks on Amazon Prime. Pray for no broken links in the ever-undependable supply chain.
Speaking of the art of money, here’s what that Impressionist overlord, Claude Monet did: Wearing stark white three-piece suits he turned lily pads into Gods. Before then, the hierarchy of painting demanded traditional religious topics get tackled by the masters as the ultimate subject matter: The Last Supper; The Annunciation. Impressionism showed contemporary God in nature instead, shifting and alive in series paintings, the shimmering and regal wheat stacks, the faithful and meandering Seine. Every day God changed in repetition, reflected in open eyes.
Art Historian Paul Hayes Tucker even speaks of the fiery negative spaces in the back of Monet’s late lilies—the willow tree mirrored there next to tendril roots of floating flowers, the moss shown through below— as the artist’s version of the Pieta; the twisting figure of Christ cradled like a baby in Mary’s arms. The absolute end before rebirth. The pictures of Monet’s gardens every morning hold the surface, the shallows, and the reflected sky. They hold The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. The Virgin gives birth to a newer God.
If you set a Campbell’s Soup can on the fence with the label peeled off and get about to target practice, no matter which variety you started with, the holes you blast will pop and ooze condensed tomato soup.
Here’s what Andy Warhol did: He poked holes in everything you once held dear. He captured the tender moments before stigmata appears.
He copied the fleur-de-lis of Catholic saints found in Cezanne and Gauguin backdrops as flat as any surface in mornings bent beyond a lily pond.
See the half-can Japanese bridge open up and yawn.
We make soup to remember the top floor cold water studio spaces we lived in back in New York, where we’d warm up cans on radiator coils or let Chicken With Rice simmer out on hotplates.
We open up and pour out soup on top of linen shirts and slacks. The loops and swirls of drips
transform into the seeping solid masses our troops can hide behind from whatever they’re attacking. We camouflage ties and pants with spills and sighs like, “This happens every time I wear white.”
We make soup to prop those cans on fences later, our after-dinner plans for rifles and squinting and glances down long-barreled sights at Jasper Johns. “Put your hands where I can see,” we squeal in glee, and strike Elvis poses from any movie where he played a sheriff or an outlaw or some other version of himself. There are 32 versions of Elvis, 32 handguns he left behind on the day he died.
Across the river another pop master, James Rosenquist, spells POP differently and backwards (pop: to make a light explosive sound). His cans are open and emptied instead, discarded in the trash. They’re the churning guts of us, the congealed spaghetti of our insides (pop; as we burst).
At the Christmas party in Los Angeles, the formal guests brought gifts for hosts (pop: to go somewhere, usually for a short time and without notice). Andy set the soup cans down and turned the art world into derelicts. Like back in St. Mary’s homeless donation box we gave non-perishables only with the labels on (pop: an informal attempt).
A blast of color, a burst of light; to pop in, pop over, or pop off. Pop pills, move quickly, feel your ears blast in the altitude: at the end there’s what your left with. You call your father, Pop.
Neale Donald Walsh tells the story: During a Christmas pageant dress rehearsal, a collection of children each held up a letter to spell out the title of the song, “Christmas Love.” But one little girl held the M upside down. It read, CHRIST WAS LOVE.
Hold a can of Campbell’s Soup upside down and you can empty out your insides. Except he stole the story—he stole the soup—from another writer. Walsh plagiarized a copyrighted work from the book Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul. He lied about talking to God. Like everyone you meet.
God exists when no one cares to speak.
We rinsed out empty cans and tied strings around their soup can waists, like humble belts for monks or priests, our tension gripping tight.
We stood in separate rooms and delighted in games of telephone, our voices carrying (I can hear you) until someone cut our tones in half when wireless was invented. True love means giving with no strings attached.
Matthew 6:6 says, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door behind you.”
On October 6, 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged Americans to build nuclear bomb shelters.
9 months later, on July 9, 1962, the Ferus Gallery in L.A. debuted Warhol’s Soup Cans.
The whole world became another soup can. And then another. Suburbia sprawled.
We lived inside a soup can. We punched until our fists were dented with bruises. We bled.
A translation of a poem by Rumi: Before these possessions you have slip away, say what Mary said when visited by Gabriel: I’ll hide inside a soup can.
When Leonardo da Vinci began painting The Last Supper, he hammered a nail in the wall. You can still see the hole in Jesus’ right temple to this day. Everything in the picture recedes toward this vanishing point. The windows are shortened, the walls are too close. On the left is Turkey Vegetable and Chicken Gumbo. In the middle is Onion, Cheddar Cheese, and Vegetable Beef. On the right is Scotch Broth, Green Pea, and Clam Chowder.
Depending on which grocery store you’re visiting, they may substitute Pepper Pot for Judas at the left.
In 2006, PEPPER POT sold at Christie’s for almost 12 million dollars, or 30 pieces of silver.
Da Vinci pulled out every trick in the book to present the elaborate illusion that a flat wall looked three-dimensional. Height (Father), Son (Width), and Holy Ghost (depth). He lied when painting about God.
Sometimes the last supper is just the last time you ate. Last as recent not last as final.
My girlfriend says, “You get so dramatic when you’re hungry.”
Monet’s paintings changed after World War I. The fiery sunsets bouncing off the surfaces of his lily pond easily mimicked Armageddon. The branches above are cradled figures held between lily pad hands, the ripples are blasts we hear and feel and tremble from near and far away. He’d painted poplar trees before this war to signal strength and resurrection. But now, his planted willow trees on canvases spread out. They wept for fallen soldiers too numerous to collect or count, each branch’s laden limbs bend, slack and weary from attack.
The onslaught flattened the world, forever changed. Monet’s truth, inherited later by Expressionists, included no horizon.
What was there to look forward to again? In those lily pond reflections, we always look up or back.
During World War I, with their country under siege, many of the priests in France were asked to please use watered-down tomato soup as substitute for communion wine. Each towel they presented goblets on bore the symbol of fleur-de-lis.
And Jesus said, “Take, eat. This is my body.”
The first thing we loaded into our bomb shelters were cans of Campbell’s Soup.
My father always passed off his homemade salad dressing as an old secret family recipe. He blended buttermilk and spices in a glass heirloom jar, set it down on the patterned tablecloth for my parent’s third date.
Years later, my mother found Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing mix packages in the trash when cleaning up the pots and pans and dinner plates. My father seduced women by following directions.
My mother never said a word. She picked out crumpled packets from the trash and made found art into still-life arranged out on the countertops. She curated his dishonesty for the rest of his life.
My mother measured out his frequent infidelities for years without searching for errant perfume
scents or haphazard lipstick streaks. Instead, she poured over dress shirts and suit coats after every business trip he ever took, scouring his entire wardrobe for any sign of ranch.
At least when Jackson Pollock and Bill de Kooning wrestled with one another, they’d fistfight in the open outside of Manhattan’s Cedar Tavern; they’d kick and tumble and spit in the gutter and the street.
No one sniffed the air back then for a whiff of dressing-dressed romaine.
At the Whitney Museum’s retrospective in 2018 there were Pollock’s movements demolished in the standard sample dance steps that were painted on the floor.
Arshile Gorky’s suffering was mocked, his flight from Armenian genocide, his letters to the U.S. government ignored until Andy’s camouflage in bloom.
Jasper Johns’ bold bronze Ballantine’s were decried; Rauschenberg’s eraser was erased and replaced by Brillo box sculptures arranged in a cathedral to, for, and by the Patron Saint of Passive Aggression.
In Brooklyn now, we pray.
They never invited Andy to the party because there’s so much sodium in the soup. Make no mistake at the late, great glamour of Studio 54 and the ghoulish garish centerpiece of the nouveau elite: Andy always was a really salty bitch. It’s the reason he had to throw parties of his own.
We make soup to empty cans for magic tricks. We hide an object, turn it into something else. We appear and disappear.
My mother wasn’t any better than my dad. Her world-famous recipe for cancer-curing chicken soup consisted of one part Campbell’s Chicken Noodle and one part Chicken and Rice. It took about 15 minutes to make.
We place labels on different things until they look the same. We cover others now with camouflage. Everyplace we go, we hide there in plain view.
After art critic Arthur Oswald Fischel saw the soup cans at the Ferus Gallery he made a resolution. In every piece he wrote until the day he died, Fischel said As American as Campbell’s Soup. He never again mentioned apple pie.
Andy invited celebrities to his dinner party: Dennis Hopper with Rice, Vegetarian Vegetable Capote, Cream of Celery Mao, Pia Beef Noodle. My mom saying, “Take me to the electric chair, I still won’t give up my recipes.”
Look around the factory, between the pink splash, yellow splash, blue. Every guest becomes a soup can with their labels off, then on. They discard designs for the video screens he’s recording.
Their makeup is their disguise.
My girlfriend said about her ex, “He’s great, but he’s an actor.”
The worst thing I never ever confessed to: We’d rifle through the parish shelves, steal wine and food from storage. One winter we even raided the nativity at St. Mary’s.
I pulled the baby from the manger and replaced him with a swaddled up can of soup.
Every single Christmas we gave our dad a patterned necktie. “So?” my girlfriend said.
I said, “He acted as if he liked them for his whole entire life.”
She said, “You wouldn’t understand L.A.”
In the post-apocalyptic bomb shelters two things fulfill our needs: The art history lessons from Gauguin, Cezanne and Warhol; the Catholic saints and fleur-de-lis.
The only time anyone ever caught Liza Minelli without her makeup on she looked exactly like a can of soup.
“Are you kidding me?” my mother said when she sealed my father in a soup can. “He loved those suits and ties,” she said.
But why? All of them are so ugly.
“He knew if he wore them out of town, I’d never find the salad dressing stains.”
Andy Warhol turned traditional art upside-down when he wore white three-piece suits as wigs upon his head.
Andy Warhol changed geography when he made the west coast the center of the art world, just because he didn’t get invited to a party.
Andy Warhol changed throwing parties and religion forever and ever too. The host will now receive you.
In Brooklyn now, we pray.
Shell casings, coffins, bullets, saints, bunkers, celebrities, symbols, mirrors.
“Look at it a different way,” Arthur Fischel said. “All those testosterone-filled animals spent the 1950s emptying themselves onto canvases. They ripped apart their casings and poured de Kooning and Pollock and Rothko soup all over everything they could get their hands on.”
Sustenance, comfort food, memories: We eat soup to remind us of our mothers.
“Andy came along and at least he had the good sense to clean it up.”
We eat soup to cure disease.
The only time I ever heard my mother curse at the dinner table came a few weeks after my father died of lung cancer. She said, “Jesus Christ, I miss him.” Before that she would have said,
Chicken and Rice, I miss him.
All of us survive on substitution.
“Look again,” Gabriel says now of the cans. “You keep saying how flat they are.”
This time when each of us turns everyone sees the bump.
In Brooklyn now, we pray.
Kurt Cole Eidsvig
Kurt Cole Eidsvig is the author of the books POP X POETRY, OxyContin for Breakfast, and Art Official. He has won a Warhol Foundation / Creative Capital Fellowship, a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, and the Edmund Freeman Award. He maintains a website at www.EidsvigArt.com.
Memories and Poor Copies
It has been months since I was with you. Quarantine passed alone and the world still feels like it is ending. I am terrified that the one replacing it may not be any better. It’s difficult to remember that even revolutions are closed circles. My brain hasn’t stopped spinning. Trying to quiet it, I dug through piles of forgotten things and came across an old copy of a paper I wrote, badly titled “Poor Copies: Benjamin, Digital Replay, and Existential Determination for Animate Art.” I shared it with you once, if you remember. It is now encrusted with dog hair and dust.
It began on the subway as I sat - maskless and younger - with a second-hand copy of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. Half asleep, I cradled the book’s cracked spine and thumbed through pages that had been marked by someone else’s hands. My mind wandered away from the prose, eyes stringing words skimmed into nonsensical sentences.
“In principle - man-made artifacts - always - intimidated - men. - practice - diffusing their - gain. - Historically - intermittently and in leaps - long intervals. - Greeks knew only two - founding and stamping. - woodcut - literature - a familiar story. However, within the phenomenon - the perspective of world history - is merely a special - lithography - lithography - lithography - block - its copperplate -permitted - Lithography - freed the hand - devolved - the eye looking into a lens. - speed - speech - foreshadow - sound - the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than - works of art - the - of - have - art in - form.”
I read the same paragraphs over and over but it’s not Benjamin’s fault - it’s the city buzz and I was overstimulated.
Then I came to it - “This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence”, wrote Benjamin on page 220 of my copy. Something excited me about this gentle assertion. Its challenge to live art as a valuable means of historiography in an age of digital hegemony. It is vital for this precarious moment in history that cannot bear any more. Perhaps it is the key to how one might make sense of past events in such a way that doesn’t compel the propagation of humiliation, cannibalism, and the predigested obsolescence of the virtual world, as the current mode of history-making continues to do.
In Benjamin’s essay, an artwork’s “uniqueness”, its “presence in time and space”, is what determines its authenticity. He asserts that its replications are not to be considered art and certainly not any mechanical reproductions of it. They all fall under the sway of the ur-. The thousands of copies of the Mona Lisa painted throughout the centuries all belong to the original painting. And while his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” considers mostly the plastic arts (in the Apollonian sense), it should still be applied to digital reproduction. And certainly, every photograph and pixelated rendering belong to the original painting. This authenticity is therefore desperately tied to physical space in this virtual age. To Google “Mona Lisa” and gaze upon her countenance through one’s computer screen does not access any of the mystical quality inherent in the original. Standing close to it at the Louvre (tiny as it is) allows for it to gently show you its texture, its strokes of paint, and it’s three-dimensionality. Being present with the artwork is integral to its existence.
Benjamin goes so far as to suggest that frequent reproduction dissipates or even eliminates the original’s power by diluting its uniqueness. This strips it of the mythical power he refers to as its “aura”. So, does mass duplication via the internet destroy art? Certainly not. Yet Benjamin argues via Paul Valéry that the change in time and medium alters the public’s ability to perceive - this art is always in flux with the people. However, it does recall the well-worn question of whether or not I would find the same power in the Mona Lisa or a Picasso if I did not already know they had cultural value - which is made possible through the mass digital dissemination of these images.
Mass replication on the internet does ensure the constriction of the spectator’s experience to only a few select aspects of the artwork, much like any other camera/screen controls gaze. The focus is limited to the macro - or rather just one thing - on the culmination rather than the process marks. In the case of painting, it privileges a view for what the image depicts but rarely allows for an encounter with the brush strokes or any aspect of how it was made. It tidies away the labour. The craft of it, however, is essential to its existence as art.
This all amounts to a temporal structure from Benjamin that might seem counterintuitive to what Stephen Hawking refers to as the psychological arrow of time, which relates to our experience of its passing and why one cannot remember the future, only the past. And Kierkegaard’s Constantin Constantius famously discovers that even in the theater the only repetition in one’s lived experience is the impossibility of recurrence.
So why should I have been so excited by these ideas and what they mean for the disarming of a capitalist white masculine space which maintains its pale grip on the past for survival? The space for disruption rests not in more static works of visual art but in live performance. One might assume that performance art is the exception to what can be mechanically reproduced, although there are plenty who have looked at the performed gesture as something repeated and passed down - something with an active legacy/history to it. The ridges and ravines caused by the brush stroke are not all that different from the ripple and pull of the muscle in the performing body. And while one may not have the same time to experience the body in action as one does with a still work of art, one has multiple engaged senses to provide the same depth of experience in an instant. The smell and sound. Jerzy Grotowski once described this exchange between performing body and spectator as a profound communion. And there is still distance to both, in a way that there cannot be for the mechanically or digitally produced artwork. It becomes an essential counterbalance if one is to begin thinking of how live art can be a useful method for reshaping the way we can remember past events. Yet all this is just a pedant’s exercises with Benjamin’s text, grappling with his idea of temporal causality and authenticity, unless I demonstrate what I mean. What the hell good is theory without a little application, even if the idea devours itself in the process?
To that end, I invite you to a gallery space with the promise of a demonstration by way of a performance exhibition and you come because you must. You arrive in the makeshift lobby space in the foyer where a jazzy instrumental rendition of Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is softly playing. This could be one of those Symbolist events, you think, and a little ham-fisted at that, but just maybe you will find it endearing. The floor is expectedly bare and you wonder if this gallery could also be my apartment in Queens.
Entering the main room, your senses are assaulted by color and motion. Throughout there hangs a tangle of coarse threads strung through sheets of paper marking out historical and narrative lines. Before your eyes can make sense of this web or the sea of blues on the wall you encounter me - my performing body - in the center of the room. Neither of us are wearing masks and yet you feel safe. My breathing is steady. I am working, gathering up from the floor what might be dirt or dust, maybe ash. I am pressing it hard in my fists until it becomes paste-like. I mix it with oil into paint. Its consistency is variable, at parts soft and flaky and others like a brittle slime. These actions are slow and deliberate. My breathing remains metered.
Your eyes wander and notice that the walls are nearly covered with layers of copies of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. Your eyes rove along the boney hand, up the sleek guitar, and around his forehead to the eyes. Why did I use this celebrity pentimento instead of something grand like an 18th Century portrait, as might have been my inclination? My mother would have preferred an Impressionist. Along one wall hangs digital prints of the painting printed from the internet - each more pixelated than the previous, all displayed the same way with the identical frame. Slumping among them is an oil painting that appears to be the actual painting itself. You suspend your disbelief and I won’t get the chance later to gloat about how I did secure Picasso’s original for this project by simply walking into the Art Institute of Chicago and asking to borrow it. Being a young, white, male artist in the United States comes with certain privileges.
In the corner you notice a door left ajar - not part of the exhibit. The closet is full of found objects cut from the exhibition at the last minute. The exhibit was streamlined for popular digital sleekness (although the internet is anything but - it is glutted with more garbage ads and refuse than any city I’ve ever passed through). There is a cheap thrill in peeking at what you’re not supposed to.
Then you spend time with a glowing monitor. On the screen is an image of the Picasso pulling back and as it pulls you see it surrounded by identical images and the view pulls back revealing a potentially infinite number of images that start to form a mosaic in the image of the original which continues pulling back to be surrounded by infinite mosaic composites that seem to form an even larger mosaic of the original image and on and on. You watch until the motion makes you nauseous and then you turn your eyes away.
On the opposite wall hangs a video screen playing footage of a large machine. It is like a 3D printer but instead of pulling from a string of plastic filament it slowly drags paint brushes over canvas. The original Old Guitarist hangs against the wall in the video accompanying the performance just as it does now. The machine is reproducing it on the worktable. At the four corners of the table, ungainly computer printers (probably collecting dust since the early aughts) are spitting out continuous copies of the image into tidy piles. There are spectators in the footage and it seems to be taking place in the same room as this and you wonder just how many performance attempts have happened here.
You return to me. I am painting with the paste and my work is starting to take shape as another reproduction of The Old Guitarist. Is the performing painting something new? The work looks like an attempt to replicate the original. But, as it is a very poor copy, is it now new? You discover later that the muck used to make the paint was actually ash. Copies of the paintings made in one of the videos were later burned up for this purpose. The colours are limited to the blacks, greys, and pale browns of the ash.
The idea suddenly strikes you that you are not able to enjoy the same freedom here as you would if you were attending the performance live. And maybe that’s why I did this. I can control where you look and how. (I retreat into words by typing this text because it’s where my power can sustain itself.) Here on the page is where I have historically enjoyed the greatest power. But too much water causes rot so I pull your focus back to my body in action. You see me position myself so that these different stations are behind me for different portions of the performance. It occurs to you that perhaps they are framing me, that their proximity is calling for their direct interaction with my body and its labor. As I move about the space on my track, certain backgrounds recur with frequency. And now your mind restlessly drifts.
A buzz from your phone calls you back. You instinctively pull it out, but you stop - nervous that I heard the vibration. Can you feel me staring through to you, straining to look deep into your eyes? Can you smell that sharp, alliaceous body odor tinged with stale coffee radiating from me? I stare at you from between the lines - peeking over letters. My eyes are pixels, all light and now out into your eyes - penetrating as the seconds flash by again and again ad infinitum.
Stop! That’s enough. This isn’t even a memory. It only happened on the page. Now here on this screen. Right in front of you. But I still can’t feel you and I don’t know that I ever will.
Patrick Scorese - I identify as a writer, historiographer, and performance-based artist living/working in Jackson Heights, NY. My practice is driven by a keen interest in continually reevaluating and forming new amalgamations of installation, object-making, and text as performance; rejoicing in the liminal to test the boundaries of History. I consider art-making to be a means of learning. Within this blend of expression, my projects claw open the present moment to reveal the past that makes it. My aim is to disarm dangerous hegemonies presumed to be natural and open up the future to radically liberatory possibilities. I am currently co-editing the multi-authored academic monograph, Pandemic Performance: Resilience, Liveness, and Protest in Quarantine Times (Routledge), about the intersection of art and activism during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Rag and Bone Aesthetics, a multimedia collaboration with visual artists Ify Chiejina, Hannah Cook, Rejin Leys, and Daphne Silbiger will be published this winter (Small Editions). Writings have also appeared in MARCH: A Journal of Art and Strategy, the International Journal of Performance Art and Digital Media, the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Ex Nunc, Culturebot, Crack the Spine, Angel Rust, and others.
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